When Tragedy Strikes: Talking to Kids About Scary Events

While tragedies have always been a part of life, technology has made it easier than ever for kids to learn about bad things that are happening all over the world. If your instinct as a parent is to shelter them from all that’s grim, that’s understandable—but of course it’s impossible.

When disaster strikes, such as a hurricane, shooting or terrorist attack, be up front with your children about what’s going on. It’s best if they hear the details from you. Ask them what they’ve already heard, and then start the conversation from there. Don’t be afraid to show emotion, such as crying, but shield intense reactions from your kids. Seeing you screaming or kicking a wall can add to the stress of the situation.

A Conversation for All Ages

Even if you limit your children’s exposure to media, older kids and teenagers are bound to see news coverage through social media on their cellphones and computers. With younger kids, though, you can—and should—keep them away from the disturbing footage that comes from news reports. Instead, talk to them about what has happened without exposing them to frightening sights and sounds.

Even young children should be given honest and accurate information about the event, but keep it basic and avoid going into too much detail. Help them understand why people are talking about this tragedy and let them know that it’s OK to be sad. Reassure them that you are there to support them.

Older kids will probably know more about the event, and they might want to talk about why it happened or how it can be prevented in the future. Keep the lines of communication open and answer any questions they have. If they’re interested in helping, encourage them to write letters of thanks to the first responders or prepare care packages for the survivors.

Is My Child Struggling?

Some children might have difficulty coping when hearing bad news. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • Sleep issues. This includes trouble falling asleep, nightmares and difficulty waking up.
  • Changes in behavior. Kids may become clingy or regress—that is, go back to acting as if they’re in a developmental stage they’ve already passed—with behaviors like thumb sucking and bed wetting. Teenagers may try drinking or smoking.
  • Mental health problems. Overwhelming sadness, depression or anxiety could pop up.
  • Physical complaints. Physical ailments might include headaches, loss of appetite and feeling more tired than usual.

Not all children will react immediately, so it’s possible that these signs might appear months after the event. If you have any questions about whether your child is having trouble dealing with scary news or how to help, talk with your child’s pediatrician.

Doctor On Demand with SCL Health offers you a way to connect with a board-certified physician anytime and anywhere—at home, at work or on the go. You can see a Doctor On Demand physician via video visit within minutes.